Passion for bogs, plants at root of ecologist's work

Wetlands: Anne Arundel's `bog man' applies creativity and hard work to conserve the area's environmental resources.

October 04, 2004|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

Keith Underwood lightly taps a spindly stem in a ravine near the Magothy River, relieved to find Maryland's last remaining box huckleberry plant is still hanging in there.

The Crownsville restoration ecologist is a driving force behind saving and propagating the Ice-Age cultivar, as well as other plants, and creating the environments that could be used to re-establish them.

Admittedly passionate about his environmental views and impatient with bureaucracy, he is always ready to start a conservation project, where he blends his beliefs in rebuilding dwindling environments and purifying water bound for the Chesapeake Bay with work, mixing paid and volunteer roles.

In recent years, he has been a key player in conservation projects on the box huckleberry, on the Atlantic white cedar tree, on the purple pitcher plant, and on bog and wetland preservation and creation -- alternating between grins and grumbles as he works with Anne Arundel County government and school officials, and state and federal officials.

"Once you understand what the condition of our natural resource is, then it is irresponsible not to take action," he says.

His gaggle of projects is so intertwined that students raise Atlantic white cedar trees propagated from seeds he collected from the declining number that remain in Anne Arundel County, and their seedlings have been planted at wetlands Underwood designed for county schools and the county Department of Public Works. In three years, some seedlings have grown nearly two-stories tall.

The plants he loves depend on well-drained, sandy soils missing nutrients the rest of the plant world needs, and their habitat is fast vanishing.

His true, but soggy, love is the bog, with its ancient plants, such as sundews and exotic pitcher plants, that dine on insects and suck pollutants out of acidic water devoid of nutrients. He has worked to win bogs greater environmental protection from development, to restore them and to build new ones.

A bog of his own

So taken with them is Underwood that he turned most of his back yard into a percolating wetland of ponds, insect-eating plants and knobby-kneed cypress trees.

The license plate on his SUV proclaims "BOG MAN." A search for his camera is an excavation through the topographic maps marking wetlands and bogs, dog-eared books identifying wetland plants and animals, and fast-food wrappers that fill the vehicle.

His wife, Mary, says she has traipsed into too many soggy sites as Underwood's chief photographer in their 13 years of marriage. (His previous marriage ended in divorce.)

"Let's put it this way: I don't go on bog trips anymore. In our first two years together, all we did was go on bog trips -- bog-hopping. I've had enough," she says.

Nowadays she handles more of the office work for the business based in their home.

For years, his interest in wetlands was an avocation.

"Everybody I know used to tell me to stop fooling around with the bogs and go to work," Underwood says.

So he did, gradually moving about a decade ago from doing other landscaping to bogs and other soggy locales that help the environment.

Underwood's rant of impatience is sincere, if so often repeated that people who work with him nod the moment he begins.

"I'm going to be 50 years old, and there's still no (fill in the plant) re-established," Underwood, now 49, winds up. "When is it going to happen? What are we waiting for? I am ready. You know, species are vanishing every day, every day."

"Keith can be demanding. But there is passion behind what he says," says Nancy Haggerty, the county engineer who supervised Underwood's latest creation, a 1.67-acre wetland at Edgewater Elementary School a few miles south of Annapolis.

The project took 18 months -- a record for speed but an eternity to Underwood.

State officials consider the wetland -- three ponds flanked by banks of plants that suck pollutants out of the water, surrounded by a moat and rimmed in greenery -- visionary. They say it blends storm water control, wetlands mitigation, natural water filtration and a diverse biohabitat.

Thrown into the mix is community involvement, student education -- kids grew half of the plants -- and neighborhood greenery.

"We can't regulate creativity," said Stewart Comstock, who does storm water oversight for the Maryland Department of the Environment. But the agency wants to encourage innovative ways of handling storm water that grow into pretty neighborhood amenities, like this, he said.

Completed last month with students and their families putting more than 4,000 plants in the ground, it already is home to a duck, sunfish and dragonflies. Even before it was finished, it kept adjacent roads from flooding in storms.

Merril Plait, chief of environmental engineering for the county's Department of Public Works, says Underwood brings uniqueness to the squishy sites he designs.

"He is mimicking a seepage wetland and bog complex better than any other" contractor and combining it with rare-plant conservation, he says.

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